Caroling Off-Key on Christmas Eve - Jayne Fresina
Jayne Fresina sprouted up in England, the youngest in a family of four daughters. Entertained by her father’s colorful tales of growing up in the countryside, and surrounded by opinionated sisters – all with far more exciting lives than hers – she’s always had inspiration for her beleaguered heroes and unstoppable heroines.
Places to find Jayne:
Ellie Vyne was ten when she drew an elaborately curled ink moustache on a sleeping James Hartley’s face. Sixteen years later, she knows he still holds a grudge about the incident, particularly the humiliation of walking around for a full day with no one mentioning his strange appearance. Such a crime to a man of his sizeable vanity, is unforgivable. Even worse for her—she's a Vyne. Since her disreputable step-uncle once ran off with James’ mother, for an adulterous affair that caused the scandal of the century, Hartleys do not speak to Vynes, or even acknowledge their existence if it can be helped. And vice versa. The feud is fiercely adhered to on either side. Therefore, sixteen years ago, young Ellie with her mischievous pen and ink, upset her own family just as much as his.
But as Ellie reasons with anyone who will listen, telling her to avoid James was the very worst thing they could have said. No child of ten should be warned not to do something, because then they are most certainly obliged to do that very thing.
Besides, James has proven himself to be a pompous ass of extraordinary dimensions ever since, and if he can't forgive a little girl's prank, well, so be it.....
James Hartley has watched Miss Ellie Vyne grow into a young woman who attacks life with a restless enthusiasm for mischief and never stands still long enough to be caught. According to his grandmother, Miss Vyne's exuberant spirits should have been safely exhausted in the decoration of bonnets and the sewing of petticoats, or embroidered screens.
"A young lady’s fingers," his grandmother comments sharply whenever anyone accidentally mentions Mariella Vyne and her sins, "could not make quite so much mischief, were they better occupied with a needle."
James knows however, it's a mistake to give Ellie Vyne anything sharp.
* * * *
In The Wicked Wedding of Miss Ellie Vyne, James and his naughty nemesis will do final battle, but just a year before the events in that book take place, they are stranded together on a snowy night, in a country manor house. Will old grudges rear their head again, or can they put aside their feud, just for the sake of a peaceful Yuletide?
James would be content to sleep through the entire winter and Ellie would rather have a tooth pulled than tolerate fifteen minutes in his arrogant presence.
But they are trapped by the snow.
Whether they like it or not, there will be spiced punch, plum pudding and kissing boughs. Whether they want to or not, their mischievous host is determined they will enjoy themselves.
It's Christmas Eve. There is no escape.
And—oh, lord— there will be singing.
ONE BAD NOTE
by Jayne Fresina
Christmas Eve, 1821
"I did advise you of it, sir," his valet, standing at the side of the bed, dressing gown in hand, solemnly defended himself against accusations of a conspiracy. "I am quite certain that when you first cast your blood-shot eyes upon the invitation, I informed you there was a likelihood of Miss Vyne attending the house party.
She is, I understand, a particular friend of the duke's."
James stared bleakly from his pillow. His head felt thick, his eyes watery, his throat cracked. Why on earth he ever thought it might be a good idea to travel into the country in the depths of winter he now had not the slightest recollection.
"I daresay, sir, the vile trickery played upon you when someone poured an excess of brandy down your throat yesterday afternoon at the club, has caused a certain fogginess to descend upon your usually precise memory. Or else you would most certainly have recalled my warnings before you returned to the house, woke me out of a very pleasant nap and insisted we ride into the country immediately."
Ah yes, brandy. He had drunk quite a bit of it yesterday and begun to feel an odd sensation he did not care to inspect too thoroughly. It was very similar to a fear of loneliness. Weeks ago he'd announced a decision to spend Christmas alone at the house in Town. With his valet at his side and a hamper from Fortnum's, what else did a man need to survive the Yuletide season? But then, for some obscure reason, he changed his mind at the last minute and here they were.
And the first person he encountered when he arrived very late yesterday, after a hellish journey through a snow storm, was that Vyne woman. Had he known she was anywhere in the vicinity, of course, he would never have accepted the duke's invitation.
"Obviously, we must leave," he grumbled croakily. And then sneezed so loudly and violently that both head and feet rose up off the bed.
"I fear that is quite impossible, sir. Torture as it might be to suffer the dreaded lady's company for the weekend, it seems unavoidable, in light of the snowfall and your own health."
"Nonsense. I'm fit as a fiddle, Grieves." A second sneeze quickly followed the first and the valet swiftly reversed a step.
"While I would never wish to cast doubt on the spectacular robustness of your health, sir, I must not allow you to put it in any danger."
"Danger, Grieves? I'm in utter jeopardy if I remain within striking distance of that woman. I was barely out of the carriage yesterday when she made an attempt on my life."
A hard snowball had accosted the side of his head and knocked his hat clean off. Bent double with laughter, she'd claimed to mistake him for someone else, but there was no doubt in his mind that Ellie Vyne knew exactly who she'd tried to murder in the dark. No doubt at all.
"I have prepared a warm bath for you, sir," said Grieves, still holding out the velvet dressing gown. "Perhaps you will feel better after that."
He considered. While remaining in bed and sleeping through the next forty eight hours seemed preferable in many ways, it would be very rude to his host. There was also the fact that several attractive, unattached young ladies were expected to join the house party. It would be remiss of James not to make himself available for their entertainment during the course of the weekend. Surely that was the reason he was invited, he reasoned. Every party needed a notorious rake in order to be deemed a success. Wouldn't want to let anybody down.
"Very well, Grieves." He hauled himself upright and swung his legs out of bed.
"Forward into the fray."
* * * *
Ellie had given the duke his tonic and massaged his legs with the liniment provided by his physician, but on bitter cold days like these he was very stiff. Although the once strong and vital gentleman suffered great frustration at not being able to move about without assistance in one form or another, he refused a wheel chair, especially while guests were present.
"Lend me your arm, Ellie dear, and I shall manage with a stick," he said as she prepared to bring him down to breakfast. "'Tis not so very sore today and your sunny smile never fails to make it better."
The duke was a widower, estranged from his son, and with no other relatives he could tolerate. To compensate, he surrounded himself with a merry group of youthful friends, among whom he counted Ellie as his closest confidant. She had traveled with him as a nurse companion for over a year now and there were some who viewed their relationship with raised eyebrows, but Ellie was never the sort to care much about rumor. She liked to feel useful and the duke had begun to depend upon her. No one else, he would say with tears in his eyes, could rock him out of the doldrums as she would —using such ribald jokes and stories. Nor could they amaze and fascinate him as she did with slight-of-hand card tricks.
Her stepfather, Admiral Vyne, had recently resumed his intermittent fussing about her spinster status, but Ellie had no desire to marry just to satisfy her family. She'd been engaged many times and that was as close as she cared to come to the altar.
Traveling at the Duke's side kept her out of the marriage mart. Another reason to be grateful for the relationship—odd and scandalous as it might appear in some eyes.
"Lean on me," she urged softly, patting his arm. "Kippers await, your grace."
"Ah, my favorite!"
It was actually necessary for the duke's butler and a footman to help him negotiate the stairs, but once they reached the ground floor she took over her post at his side and they walked together into the breakfast room.
Lady Cooper-Chumley, Major Martindale and the Barker sisters were already seated. James Hartley—an arrival that caught her by surprise yesterday—was at the sideboard, helping himself to scrambled egg from one of the silver chafing dishes. They were still awaiting Lord and Lady Prescott and the Viscount Stepney, but after last night's snow storm Ellie doubted they would come. She still wasn't sure why the duke invited James, unless it was to keep the Barker girls happy. They were the duke's wards, daughters of a deceased cousin, and neither had taken pains to hide their extreme boredom at the thought of Christmas in the country with their aged, crippled guardian. Since Hartley's arrival, however, things were looking up for Emily and Fanny Barker. This morning the girls had rare smiles on their faces. And a measure of rouge that was surely inappropriate that early in the day.
When James turned to find a seat, both girls waved him over, signaling to an empty chair between them.
"I do hope everyone slept well," the Duke exclaimed merrily, his ruddy, genial expression giving no sign of the physical pain he must have suffered until Ellie helped him into a chair at the head of the long table.
Everyone agreed that sleep claimed them quickly last night and the Barker girls exclaimed at how shocked they were to wake and find the scenery coated in thick fleecy snow.
"We are quite tucked in," the Major grimly assured them, as if they were cut off from civilization entirely. "It will be days before we can get out of the house."
The duke laughed at his friend's dour expression. "'Tis fortunate then, that I keep a well-stocked pantry and a very able cook. Miss Timmons will feed us well in our imprisonment."
"And you traveled through the storm last night, so I hear," Lady Cooper-Chumley addressed James in a loud, imperious voice. "Must have taken leave of your senses, man."
"Quite possibly," James replied with a rueful grin and one quick, sly glance at Ellie. He seemed as annoyed to find her there as she was to see him last night, but had he not known she would be present? Of course, he was usually too absorbed in his own life to pay much attention to anyone who wasn't regularly a part of it, so she supposed there was a possibility he hadn't known she was the duke's companion these days.
James was, regretfully, the same spotlessly attired, dour-faced gentleman he'd always been. What other women saw in him, beyond surface attractions, she couldn't imagine.
Apparently she was immune to his deeper "charms". Oh, she knew he was handsome. That could not be denied, even if she heartily wished it could. But he wore that fine shell like a shield, the true man hidden under expensive clothes and a superior demeanor. Ellie had given up trying to peek under that mask.
"You must have been terribly bored in Town, Mr. Hartley, to venture all the way out here," she remarked, adding wryly, "Did you not wish to spend Christmas with your grandmother?" She knew Lady Ursula Hartley was his only living relative and a mean, curmudgeonly old woman.
His blue eyes, striking as bluebells poking through the shadows in a dark forest, fastened upon her for a moment and then narrowed warily. "Lady Hartley never expects me until the new year and she likes her routines undisturbed."
"Really? But it's Christmas."
He shrugged, his slender lips twitched. "Exactly. She's too busy at this time of year."
"Too busy for you?" She almost laughed, but curbed it when she saw he was completely serious.
"She does not want me in her way at Christmas. Why would she?"
Ellie sat back in her chair, bemused and at the same time suffering an unexpected jolt of sympathy for the man. She's always known the Hartleys were an odd, emotionally stunted lot. But for Lady Hartley to urge her grandson—her only relative— not to visit at Christmas because one was otherwise socially engaged...? Slowly Ellie shook her head.
Clearly he took offense to her pity, however genuinely she felt it, and quickly turned the conversation to attack her. "And you are here, Miss Vyne," he pointed out, setting his coffee cup in its saucer with a clumsy clatter. "Not wanted by your family either it seems?"
"On the contrary. I was invited to Lark Hollow, but my sisters will both be there and I—" and she knew they would band together with her stepfather and try pressuring her into marriage again, squeezing and pushing on her as if she was a lump of clay to be fitted in a mould. "I was needed here, with the duke," she finished hastily, avoiding Hartley's icy gaze.
A short silence followed, throughout which she felt his cool blue eyes still watching her, studying in their critical way. She must have toast crumbs on her cheek or a pimple on her chin. Something had evidently drawn his harsh notice that morning.
"I'm sure Hartley came because he was eager to see my wards." The duke beamed down the table. "And partake of our festivities here at Ardleigh Hall."
"Certainly, your grace."
"Now he has no choice but to partake of them," the major muttered into his coffee cup. "None of us do. We are stranded. No doubt there are trees down in the road and drifts as tall as a man and his horse out there."
"True," the duke swallowed another chuckle. "But take comfort, Major. Should food supplies run low we can always eat one another. I vote we consume Lady Cooper-Chumley first."
The lady gave him a reprimanding tap on the arm with her lorgnette, and then laughed good-naturedly. Ellie too laughed, while the Major looked perturbed that no one took their situation seriously. The Barker girls paid no attention and James looked horrified. Of course, Ellie thought as she rolled her eyes, he had no sense of humor.
Fanny Barker watched James take his first bite from the fork. Her eyes had barely left him and she'd completely forgotten her own breakfast. Anyone might think she witnessed a holy apparition, but this was not uncommon behavior around James Hartley. "I am not afraid of being snowed in. I think it's rather cozy. We shall have charades this evening and sing Yuletide songs, Mr. Hartley. Do you like to sing?"
Ellie snorted while trying to choke back a chuckle. James put down his fork. "I can't say I have much of an ear for a tune, Miss Barker."
"Oh, but that doesn't matter, Mr. Hartley. Everyone sings at Christmas."
"And it's often an appalling racket," her sister added with a sniff.
"But you must all participate," the duke exclaimed. "I shall be most put out if anyone declines to join in. No mouthing the words! I won't have it." He gave Ellie a teasing wink. "Anyone caught not singing will be dumped out into the snow and left to fend for themselves. No portion of Lady Cooper-Chumley shall be saved for them."
He was a great one for games and liked his guests to be as rowdy as possible. Another reason why Ellie wondered at his choice of James Hartley to make up the numbers. Few people were less likely to enjoy themselves at this sort of party than a Hartley.
Candle-snuffers extinguished light and warmth in a parlor with less alacrity than James could darken her evening with one disapproving scowl in her direction. Yet other women—even some she considered relatively sane and witty— flocked to the arrogant rake, basking in a flame he never lit for her, and seeking out his company when there were far more pleasant, less quarrelsome gentlemen in the room.
"In fact," the duke announced suddenly, "to ensure everybody sings, I will put you in teams and give each a song. We shall make a competition of it and see who makes the best show. There, that will make for a very merry evening, will it not? Gingerbread straight from the oven, a few cups of Mrs. Timmons dizzy-wizzy punch and a jolly good singsong. We shall soon forget the cold then, eh? As Miss Fanny says, we shall make it very cozy."
Only Lady Cooper-Chumley, who was exceedingly fond of the sound of her own voice, and Fanny Barker who leapt at any opportunity to make an exhibit of herself, looked in the least excited by this idea. Of course, accomplished, well-raised ladies were supposed to be capable of performing musically whenever required. Some excelled, most played or sang merely adequately. For Ellie, who had never applied herself to practice, it was simply another opportunity for public humiliation.
But the duke would have his way. She'd often observed, in his most teasing moods, that he was no more than an overgrown boy looking for wicked pastimes to keep him amused. Such entertainments generally came at the expense of the timid or naive—or just plain irritating. He liked to level the field, as he would say to Ellie. He had no time for hypocrisy or false modesty.
Now, pointing with his knife at each distraught face around his table, he added, "The Major and Lady Cooper-Chumley will make one team. Miss Emily Barker and I shall make another. Mr. James Hartley and my dear Ellie shall be the third team."
Fanny immediately protested that she was left out and her guardian assured her that as soon as the Viscount Stepney arrived he would be her partner. "And you must play for us all, Fanny. I believe you have the quickest fingers at the pianoforte."
Easily appeased by this sliver of flattery, Fanny Barker looked down her sizeable nose at her sister and smirked.
Somewhere in the last few moments Ellie had lost the will to eat. Which was most unlike her. "But perhaps Miss Fanny Barker could take my place in the singing. I do not really care to—"
"No, no. You will partner Mr. Hartley, Ellie. Now don't be a spoil sport, my dear."
He wagged a playful finger at her. "It is not like you to turn down such fun."
"But I have a sore throat, your grace," James muttered, dabbing with a napkin at the coffee he'd just spilled down his waistcoat. "I shan't be able to sing and I'm quite sure you'll all be grateful for it."
"Tsk, tsk, Mr. Hartley. Surely you will not let me down!" the duke cried, bringing his fist to the table with a bang that shook all their cups. "We shall have singing, now then. Or else."
For a ghastly moment no one spoke or moved. Then the duke burst into peals of trembling laughter, weaving about in his chair. "Your faces!" he sputtered. "Oh, dear. You think me such a tyrant. Worry not. As long as you all do as I say, I shan't have to eat anybody. This is Christmas Eve, dear friends and as long as you all have lots of fun, whether you want to or not, all will be well. I command it!" And he roared with laughter.
* * * *
The song chosen for them was God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
Ellie pushed the sheet of lyrics into his reluctant hand. "We may as well rehearse or it'll be a complete shambles."
He looked at her. "Don't you think it will be anyway?"
"Undoubtedly." She sighed, shaking her head, dark curls spilling down the side of her slender neck. Just like the woman herself, it seemed, her thick, wild hair never stayed put either. "But I've no intention of being the worst of the bunch." She tilted her face up to him, her lively eyes shining brightly with determination.
"Don't you feel the same?"
James had never realized she was the competitive sort. But perhaps he should have known. They'd encountered one another a handful of times over the past few years and every time they spoke it was to have an argument. Inevitably she would point out his resemblance to a stuffed goose and he would call her a thoughtless, unguarded woman, a danger to herself and anyone with the misfortune to cross her path. If he exclaimed at the brightness of the sun, she complained of a chill. If he stated a preference for whist, she would declare herself perfectly bored of it and yearning to play nothing but piquet.
At its narrowest point her contrary streak was a mile wide.
But he'd never realized Ellie Vyne's desire to win extended beyond their quarrels and her brazen need for the last word. Standing at his side, she now studied the lyrics on the sheet as if it was to be her last address before she met the headsman's axe.
He'd never seen her take anything this seriously. In fact he didn't think she was capable of it.
"I can't sing on key," he advised her calmly. "I am tone deaf."
"I know. I heard you once. Like a cat that's swallowed a tin whistle and got itself stuck in a chimney."
He frowned and stood straighter, squaring his shoulders. "May I ask when?"
"I...don't recall. Exactly."
If he was not mistaken, Miss Vyne's cheeks had taken on a decidedly crimson hue. "You lie, of course."
"Oh, no. I heard. My ears have never been the same since."
But he'd never sung in company in his life. The only time he ever felt the desire to burst into song was when he was alone and in his—
"I got stuck once," she muttered and then bit her lip. He thought he heard a low curse exhaled.
Taking a step to the side he glowered down at her. "Stuck where?"
Ellie swallowed, her gaze pinned to the song lyrics. "I heard you singing in your bath. It just happened. I didn't intend to be there. It was an accident. Like I said, I got stuck."
This was getting more incredulous by the word.
James tugged the paper out of her hand, set it on the pianoforte and folded his arms. "Stuck where, Miss Vyne?"
She tipped her chin up and faced him with all the nonchalance of an accomplished lying cheat. "I would prefer not to say."
"Then I prefer not to sing in this blasted competition."
Her lips parted. Here came the pink tip of her tongue. One swipe to the left, another to the right.
"Stuck where, Miss Vyne?"
She took a deep breath and out it came in a rush. "Your bedchamber. Under the bed. Now," she cleared her throat, "let's practice."
He stared. "Under my bed?"
Slowly she nodded, squeezing her dampened lips together.
"When? Where?...How...?" There were too many questions and they all crowded into his head before tumbling out on his tongue, falling over one another in haste to be first answered.
"Your house in Town. Five years ago at least. When you had that valet called Watkins."
It didn't seem a natural response to believe her, but the faint blush staining her usually shameless cheek was interesting. And incriminating. Enough to suggest she might, this time, be telling the truth.
"I was on a scavenger hunt," she explained. "One of the last items on the list was a pair of James Hartley's drawers." The woman surprisingly had the grace to look guilty as she gradually revealed her story, one hand raised to check her curls, her gaze downcast. "Rumor had it that you had initials sewn into them and, of course, being an infamous rake....well, they made quite a souvenir. That's how you came to be on the list, I suppose. Your small clothes specifically." She tucked a curl behind her ear.
"So I posed as a housemaid applying for a post. Your valet had no idea who I was. I managed to slip upstairs. I got to your chamber and then I heard you, directly behind me. The only place to be concealed was under your bed."
His stern composure suddenly threatened by the urge to laugh, James swiveled on his heel and stared through the tall, arched drawing room windows, out at the pillowy layers of pristine snow that covered the Duke's estate.
"I heard you calling to your valet for a bath," she continued behind him. "There was nothing I could do but lay there and wait."
James saw his face reflected in the glass. He was looking a little worse for wear after his rough night. Really ought to get a shave before this evening's party. Make an effort now he was there.
Running his mind over the routine for his evening helped keep it from straying into uncharted territory, but it was a damned struggle. Her softly admitted confession fell over him as the snow had done over the pine trees outside, transforming them into new shapes, bowing the branches, silencing all but the most muffled sound.
"That's when I heard you singing. Or trying to. Growling might be a better word." She chuckled uneasily and her reflection fidgeted behind his. "Now, can we rehearse, Hartley?"
Just like that she wanted to forget her crime and expected him to do the same, because she was accustomed to getting away with such behavior. One day someone would put a stop to her wild antics. It wouldn't be him. No, indeed. James meant to keep all his parts intact until he no longer required them. Taking Miss Vyne in hand would put every appendage at risk.
Pity though. He sincerely doubted there was any other man quite so capable of taming Ellie Vyne. Others might make a brave effort, but she would, probably, be left to wage battle against the male species with her peculiar brand of havoc for as long as they both lived. Despite countless engagements she'd avoided marriage this long. She was twenty six—almost an old maid—but not in any apparent haste to settle down.
"Hartley. The song," she reminded him crisply, back to the business at hand.
Swinging around to face the room again, James demanded to know how long she'd been under his bed.
"A very long time." She blinked, sighing gustily. "I was bored to sobs. It was the dullest evening I ever spent in the company of a naked man."
He glared at her. "And did you succeed in your quest?"
Her long lashes lifted, eyes twinkling up at him, lips forming a smug smile. "Of course. When I play I always win."
She was a menace. Having known that for sixteen years he wondered why anything she confessed should now surprise him. She had a habit of popping up unexpectedly, in his way. One day he might find her in his soup tureen when he lifted the lid. No doubt she would have some wildly improbable excuse for her presence there.
They both reached for the sheet of lyrics at the same time and almost tore the paper in two.
"I suppose you blamed your valet for the lost item," she said.
"Watson never mentioned anything missing."
"Poor fellow." She smiled archly. "I daresay he feared what you might do to him."
Feeling the tug as she tried pulling it out of his hand, James gripped his side of the paper even tighter. "Did you fear what I might do to you, Miss Vyne, if I found you under my bed?"
That wiped some of the mischievous sauce off her face. When she looked down, it occurred to James that the closer he got the harder it was for her to look him in the eye. "I doubt you would have known what to do with me," she muttered, her little pearl earrings trembling with agitation. Or nervousness—hard to tell with this woman.
Her mouth was looking remarkably pink and dewy that afternoon. Pouting like a delicate rose bud, half opened after a shower of summer rain.
"Oh, I would have known what to do with you, Miss Vyne," he said huskily. "You may depend upon it."
Briefly her eyes flashed upward and he rolled his lips together, hiding the smile that wanted out.
"For pity's sake, let's rehearse," she exclaimed hotly.
As if it was entirely his fault that they'd become distracted.
* * * *
He found Grieves in the bedchamber that evening with a towel draped across his head and shoulders, bent over a bowl of steaming water.
"It would appear, sir, that I caught your cold," he wheezed, raising his damp, wilted face from the mist.
"That's odd, Grieves," James replied perkily, "I'm feeling quite recovered myself. Positively bouncing with health."
"I am very glad for you, sir. In fact, this water you see running down my face, sir, is tears of joy at your recovery."
"We must put you back to rights, Grieves. I shall ring for a housemaid to bring you some tea with warm honey."
"That won't be necessary, sir. Since I will not be able to attend the festivities in the servants' hall this evening, his grace's cook—a stout, jolly lady by the name of Timmons—has offered to send me up a tray with some of her punch. I am told it has wonderful restorative properties."
James laughed. "Don't drink too much of it."
"No, sir." The valet squinted doubtfully up at him. "You certainly appear to be in a good mood, sir. The day turned out better than you hoped, perhaps?"
He thought about that. "Since I had so few hopes for it in the beginning, the only way it could go was up."
"Indeed, sir." Grieves paused and then added, "The dreadful Miss Vyne is still in the house, sir?"
"And you are still in one piece. Still have all your valuables?"
"So far." He ran his hands over his chest and checked the hidden pocket inside his coat. All seemed to be in order. On the outside, in any case.
James thought of the way she'd smiled.
When I play I always win.
It was dangerous to let his guard down with that Vyne woman. One never knew what she might do next. He began to look forward to finding out.
* * * *
Besides, she reasoned, it wasn't as if there was anyone there to impress. She was quite certain whatever she wore would pass muster with the Duke. As for the Major, he would be too busy worrying about their imminent demise while stranded in the snow, to take notice of her gown or the way she wore her hair.
As she finished pulling on her evening gloves the Duke came to see her. His mood was pensive.
"Christmas has a tendency to make me remember the past," he told her, sitting in a chair beside the dresser. "There is a sadness to it—echoes of dear folk now gone."
He must be thinking of his wife, she realized. "Yes, it is important to remember those we've known and loved."
"My sweet, lively little girl." he reached for her hand and lightly kissed it. "You have brought spirit and vivacity back into my life this past year. What would I have done without you?"
Although she was hardly a "little girl" Ellie did not correct him. She smiled, thinking how very kind he had been to her—more so, in many ways, than her stepfather, the Admiral.
"But we must think not only of the past, but of the future," he went on, speaking softly, still holding her gloved hand.
"At Christmas we should look, not only back to where we were last year, but forward to where we will be in the next."
Suddenly Ellie felt her heart pinch fearfully. Oh, no. Surely he wasn't about to propose marriage. Panic stole through her body, seizing her in its cold grip until she became completely frozen and rigid.
"I will not be here forever, my dear," he said with unusual solemnity. "You must prepare yourself for when I am gone and I don't like to think of you being left alone."
She didn't realize she'd been holding her breath, until the walls began to fade out.
As he squeezed her fingers it brought her back to reality and she exhaled a rush of air. "You need not worry about me. I am not afraid to be alone, your grace."
Slowly he smiled. "I know you are not afraid. You are quite fearless, Ellie Vyne."
She managed a giddy, careless laugh. "See?"
"But I am afraid. I am not as fearless as you."
Ellie took his other hand and now held them both in hers. "What lies ahead is unknown for everyone. Just as it was for us when we were babes, waiting in the womb. We did not know what would happen. We cried when forced out of that comfortable, warm place we knew, but there was nothing to fear. I always imagine it must be the same when we pass out of life as it is when we enter."
"But it is not Death I fear. Goodness no, my dear." She was relieved when his broad face cracked again in one of his familiar chuckles. "I shall be up there," he rolled his eyes to the ceiling, "causing havoc and enjoying every minute of it. The only thing I worry about leaving behind is you."
"Me? But I—"
"This time next year, when I look down from my galloping cloud, I want to see you blissfully happy, Ellie."
What could she say to that? It was impossible to promise such a thing and he knew it.
He released her grip and raised his hands to her cheeks, patting them gently.
"Just remember, young lady, I won't be here forever. And there is someone out there for you. Probably right under your nose. Mark me Ellie Vyne, he'll scoop you up and make an honest woman of you."
She scowled. "Goodness, I hope not."
He threw back his head and laughed.
* * * *
Rather than encounter the noisy, blustering newcomer, James slipped into the dining room, following a footman who was lighting the candelabra.
"Good evening, sir." The boy stopped and bowed when he saw James. "Is there something you require, sir?"
"No, no. Just...admiring the table."
The footman resumed his duties and James strode casually around the room. The Duke's dining table was already set with glistening crystal glasses, and gleaming china.
Tall candles lit the center, which was decorated with pine boughs and holly. Name cards edged in gilt were placed by each plate.
One glance over his shoulder assured James that the footman wasn't watching. He quickly took two of the cards and swapped them.
Then he tugged on his lapels and smirked.
Good. She would sit beside him this evening, not that ridiculous brat, Stepney. It was, after all, best if he kept an eye on her. Personally.
Very pleased with himself, he spun around on his heel and found the object of his thoughts directly behind him, dressed in a lavender silk gown with a daringly low décolletage. A pair of long, white evening gloves accentuated her slender, graceful arms, which she now curved at her sides, hands on her waist. Up came her small, stubborn chin and her eyes shone with bemusement.
"What the devil are you doing, skulking about in here, Hartley?"
* * * *
Good thing he didn't ask her what she was doing there too, she thought. Apparently they were both on secret missions that evening. She'd hoped to get into the dining room and check the seating arrangement before anyone came down. Whatever Hartley was up to in there she had no idea and he wasn't about to tell her.
He sniffed scornfully, fine nose lifted, thin lips snapped open reluctantly. "I came into this room by mistake. I thought it was the drawing room."
"Certainly not. How dare you? Hartleys never fib. We leave that to Vynes."
Hmm. Definitely guilty of something, she mused. Ellie walked around him and looked at the place cards, reading the names on the two closest.
That was alright then.
Something tickled the nape of her neck and she raised a hand quickly. It was only a fallen lock of hair, drifting against her skin. But James Hartley was very near behind her and she might almost imagine....
Every pore on her body drank in the scent of him. No man ever made her nervous like he did. For a breathless moment she clutched at harmless subjects for conversation.
"I hope you've been practicing the song," she exclaimed.
"I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Good. Remember, one bad note will spoil the entire performance."
They both started for the door at the same time. "And you remember, Miss Vyne, that it's God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Not God rest ye, merry gentlemen."
She halted in the open doorway and so did he. "You really don't want those gentlemen to be merry do you, Hartley?"
"It's not me," he replied firmly. "It's the proper punctuation and it's meant to be observed."
"Well, I've always sung it my way."
"Naturally, you don't pay attention to the details unless they help you win an argument."
Since she thought he was waiting to let her through first, she took a step forward, but James Hartley moved at exactly the same moment. The space was wide enough for them both, if they stopped and turned to face one another. But when they did, James suddenly put his hands on her arms. Ellie looked up.
A large bunch of mistletoe hung from the frame. She'd warned the Duke that there had better not be any, but he relished misbehaving, of course. Like her.
She placed her hands flat to James Hartley's chest, simply because there was no where else to put them. Or so it seemed in that rash moment.
His eyes were very blue, warm and cloudless as midsummer sky. His lips curved in a slight smile and she felt her pulse tumble over itself.
"Merry Christmas, Miss Vyne," he murmured softly.
Ellie tried to catch her breath. He stared at her mouth, lowered his head just an inch toward her, tightened his fingers almost imperceptibly around her gloved arms.
And her heart, having raced blindly around a corner, now came to a dead stop. It was so quiet suddenly that one could hear a mouse scratching in the wainscoting.
She parted her lips and angled her face upward. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Hartley."
That bend of his lips grew braver, stronger. She could smell the lemon and bergamot of his shaving cream.
Her eyelashes lowered and she leaned in.
"Miss Vyne! Miss Vyne! Where are you hiding, little minx?" The Viscount Stepney's bellowing tones shattered their moment as his footsteps marched toward them down the passage. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!"
He would be upon them in seconds.
James and Ellie instantly parted and he let her pass through the doorway ahead of him.
Her pulse was pounding so hard she felt it in the soles of her feet and feared it would make an echo along the tiles. He walked behind her, so she couldn't see his countenance and had no idea what he must be thinking. Indeed, she didn't even know what she was thinking, or what had overtaken her under the mistletoe in that weak moment.
In the distant drawing room someone began to play The Twelve Days of Christmas. Voices laughed and chattered. The fragrance of oranges and cloves, pine and wood smoke tickled her nostrils. She ran her gloved fingertips along the wall as she passed, reassuring herself that she was back on earth, but her heart was still thumping too hard. Like those drummers drumming in the song. Ellie tried to calm it by reminding herself that James Hartley was a notorious rake who was never happy until he knew every woman in a room adored him. That was very probably the reason why he would have kissed her. It was his way of putting her in her place, winning an argument.
Ha! He was bold—had to hand that to him. Really, it was quite ridiculous. Had she not warned Hartley that when she played she always won?
Oh, lord! He'd almost kissed her and she'd nearly let him.
A kiss that wasn't.
Somehow that was even worse.
A kiss interrupted was simply the promise of a kiss to be.
It hadn't happened yet, but now they both knew it would.
One of these days...
Find out when in THE WICKED WEDDING OF MISS ELLIE VYNE (to be released in paperback and e-book on January 1, 2013. Found in most bookstores and available now for pre-order from Amazon)
God rest ye merry, gentlemen!
WHEN A SCANDALOUS LADY...
By night Ellie Vyne fleeces unsuspecting aristocrats as the dashing Count de Bonneville. By day she avoids her sisters' matchmaking schemes and dreams up torments for her childhood nemesis—the arrogant, far-too-handsome-for-his-own-good James Hardey. Her latest prank: "winning" the Hardey diamonds in a card game from James's mistress.
STEALS FROM A NOTORIOUS RAKE...
James finally has a lead on the thieving Count de Bonneville, tracking him to a disreputable inn. He bursts in on none other than the brazen, irritating, nearly naked Ellie Vyne. Convinced she is the count's mistress, James decides it's best to keep his enemies close. Very close. He must get those diamonds back, and seducing Ellie will be the perfect bait.
IT CAN ONLY END IN A WICKED WEDDING
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